On the role of authentic relationship in humanistic psychotherapy
by Blake Griffin Edwards
Note: In accordance with ethical standards of practice, client identity has been protected through alteration of name and unique identifying details.
My freshman year of college I found myself on the library floor one afternoon with the first book in hand that stood out, The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud. I read and read and slept and read, toiling in Freud’s voice to find my own. I had remembered fairly vivid dreams. A dream at three-years-old of lying on my back in bed and a large wolf leaping through the window. A phantasm, it fell like a spectre through the window without shattering the glass and into the top of my chest. I shook. At seven, living in another town, I had another similar dream on a new bed with a new window in which a large wildcat leapt out from me and into the night. Always lying on my back in bed. I wrestled to make meaning, determined that whatever power leapt in or out of me, id would become ego. Nevertheless—
During those weeks, I also read portions of The Ego and the Id. I found captivating psychoanalytical mish-mash, and I chewed on each word. Admittedly, I had contracted pedant-envy. What made Freud astounding was not merely his grand schema of the mind, with its component parts and mechanistic drives but also his daring to rendezvous into the dream world. We came to fathom a kind of governing self within a fluidity of drives and impulses, a template in the Socratic quest toward examined lives, and also to grapple with the depth of our own mysteries. I found myself mish-mash, an enigma to be unriddled. Yet, I wondered, is it too easy to escape courage or responsibility in real life from a purely interpretive posture? And hadn’t Freud engaged in a psychological voyeurism stubbornly rooted in psychic determinism and sexual fantasy? Did Freud’s model itself encompass his own, as he called them, fixations and wish fulfilments? Do all of us, in our own ways, project unresolved family tensions and traumas onto our adult world and worldview?
Sometime later I found myself back on that aisle decoding portions of a few other books by a name I was not familiar with, SØren Kierkegaard. The books were Either/Or, Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, and The Concept of Anxiety. I found in Kierkegaard, alternatively, a prefiguring of psychology’s Third Force – Maslow, Rogers, May, Tillich, Perls, Frankl, and the rest – whose humanistic, phenomenological, and existentialist notions constituted reactions to psychoanalysis and behaviourism. Half a century before Freud taught us to analyse a person, Kierkegaard taught us how to be a person, challenging us to lean vulnerably into our angst, taking courage for a leap that will catch us.
Kierkegaard analogised our anxieties about life as peering over a cliff, the piercing excitement that you could fall over and plummet to your death combined with the simultaneous terror in knowing that you could throw yourself – fear and dread, respectively. Yet Kierkegaard (1849/1983) prophesied that our most common despair is in not choosing to be oneself, that there is tragedy in a person being “another than himself”. He declared: “To will to be that self which one truly is, is indeed the opposite of despair” (3).
Fear and dread
Back in my twenties, I spent a couple of years working with homeless teens in the Seattle area, in residential treatment. A couple of weeks prior to meeting me, Mikey had stepped off a Greyhound bus from Boston, a rebel and a runaway. During that time Mikey, coolly dispirited with both hands tucked into a black leather jacket over a grey hooded sweatshirt, just rode along that long haul between coasts, with little to eat. When Mikey screeched his way into the bus station just three blocks from the Westin on Westlake Ave in downtown, he had only about twenty bucks in his pocket, maybe. He hadn’t the faintest idea of where he would go when he got there or why he had even chosen Seattle of all places.
He was surrounded by people, yet completely alone in the world, and hurting from pains inflicted onto others, catalysed from the energies of pains that had been inflicted onto his much younger self. That afternoon – he had travelled all night – Mikey strolled up Stewart Street in search of a miracle, and eight blocks later he turned right on Yale and spotted a large name on the sign of a building, the name of a local non-profit that provides, among other things, education for homeless teens. A month later he’d be a student there, and three months later he’d have a steady job at a local grocery store.
But we’ll come back to that. That day Mikey more or less chatted with a young receptionist he thought was cute and just after snagging a brochure was on his way out the door. Mikey headed down the road, flipping his hoodie up in the drizzle, bewitched a bit by the enchantment of the Emerald City. But not too bewitched. He was from Boston, after all. Mikey headed downhill, as anyone in his position would have done, down toward the waterfront, toward older buildings and a better view of ships. That night, Mikey worked his way back to the guise of safety, the plaza outside of Westlake Center.
Mikey didn’t realize that in the glimmer of Macy’s and Starbuck’s he’d be fending off sexual assaults and struggling to keep one eye open on a hard metal bench before being yelled at by a cop who was at least to some extent scared, like he was, of what he didn’t know to do. Mikey barely slept that night, and he barely ate. I know all this because he told me in that booming Boston accent with all his smug “whateva’s”. Truth be told, I didn’t like Mikey at first. He was hesitant to receive me into the fold at the boys’ shelter because I was the new guy. He’d been there, what, two weeks!? And I was this new guy that needed to be tried and tested? Whateva. Mikey was a loner. He would disappear and come back a couple of hours later smelling like smoke, or we’d have to go on special missions to find him.
I got to know him, of course, and he got to know me. He didn’t let me off easy, called “bullshit” every time I started talking like a “pissant shrink wannabe”. I wasn’t just his therapist. I was his shelter case manager too. Which means I’d be shooting the basketball with him and a few other guys one minute, eating pasta and drinking Sunny D the next, and then meeting in private for an hour, hoping he didn’t notice me slipping in and out of Robin Williams:
I can’t learn anything from you I can’t read in some fuckin’ book. Unless you wanna talk about you, who you are. And I’m fascinated. I’m in. But you don’t wanna do that, do you, sport? You’re terrified of what you might say. Your move, chief.
(Good Will Hunting)
Mikey would sit there, slumped, looking down, swiping his nose, glancing past me, and, in a fury of my own discomfort, I’d extol him with a weakened dosage of positive psychology. I was pretty sure he could literally see through me. Every once in a while, Mikey would look directly into my soul and call out at me like I was a quarter-mile away – “Hey, Blake man, you should write a book”. I’d retract and squint a bit toward him questioningly.
In our best moments, I would quiet my own particular anxieties, relax into a generalised angst, and in the spaces of my own curiosity and concern, embodied in expressions and angled gestures, Mikey would occasionally just begin to talk with me. He would make wise cracks about other guys in the shelter, and he’d speculate about ways to make a buck or meet a girl. Sometimes he would tell me he was fed up with all this “bullshit”. He would not define bullshit. And he’d tell me that he felt trapped or sad or tired or chill or hopeful or whateva.
Once Mikey had been in classes for a few weeks, I felt like he was doing well enough that I should give him more space, so I’d shorten our sessions. I didn’t communicate with Mikey about why our sessions were shortened. I’d just open the door and yell for Joel, who ran the shelter, to ask what was next on the house agenda. Looking back, I realise that I was not sure of the next step, and I was fearful of daring to just be in relationship with Mikey. I had looked for a therapeutic schtick to move to some higher goal, some elevated level of functioning to pursue, but I could not find it.
I felt and was in many ways, I confess, inadequate. I had never walked a mile in Mikey’s shoes. I could not remember, or else figure out, how to best apply all the developmental and theoretical insights I had so enthusiastically learned. I was uncertain of the accuracy of his file’s diagnostic categorisation and, thus, questioned the basis for my every attempted intervention. I sometimes found myself jealous of those practitioners who chattered on about their clients with apparent diagnostic precision and therapeutic conviction. If only I knew which way was up.
Joel wasn’t such a head case as me. He would pick the guys up from school, take them to the library to complete homework and check their email, make them a snack, shoot the basketball and maybe goof off on a skateboard, play video games, and end up chatting about their latest love interests. I envied Joel’s ease with my clients, therapy clients, psychotherapy clients, mental health therapy clients – I tried on these labels to see which best bolstered my sense of professional pride. I would sometimes try and explain either psychodynamic or systemic rationales for the difficulties they were facing. Not this day. I was becoming lost in my own need for validation. I knew I had to try something different.
That day I drove Mikey to a nearby trail. As we walked hilly terrain through misty forest, he told me about his aunt and uncle back home that cared so much for him. He told me about a few close friends – one in jail, one addicted to heroin, and one who betrayed him by sleeping with his girlfriend. As he did, he would stop occasionally and continue storytelling as he karaoke-stepped a few paces to the left, a few back to the right, and all the while holding eye contact through a glazed sheen of tears. We would walk further, stop again, and this continued even beyond a brief moment in which he caught himself in a moment of meta- awareness, chuckling as he wiped his eyes, “Yo Blake, I don’t know what kind of spell you’re putting on me, bro. I’ve never shared all this…all the emotion behind it. Thanks. You suck”.
I gut-laughed. And we both experienced a kind of mutual fullness in that moment. By “we” and “mutual”, I am making a massive assumption. As we walked on, Mikey directed: “Let’s go home boss”. We did. Something important changed on that walk. And although I believe it involved primarily Mikey, a shift in experiential understanding was taking place in me as well. After that, I remained as odd and awkward, quirky and clunky as ever, yet I began to loosen up a bit and lean into something of relationship, with Mikey and with the other boys in the shelter, in the ways that I more vulnerably and openly acknowledged my own frailties, questions, and hope around how we were going to see positive changes take place for their lives.
Mikey got himself into some more trouble. Joel and I infuriated him by taking away his cigarettes one day. Mikey stayed up later than he was supposed to that night debating the meaning of life and playing video games with Christian, our night monitor – another extraordinary mentor for these boys. While working toward credits through his school, Mikey was required to keep a part-time job, and he landed one at a local grocery store where I visited him a couple of times. That first time I caught eyes with him from across the produce section, he lit up in a way I didn’t think he was capable of lighting up. “Yo Sammy, get on over here! This is Blake. He’s the one I told you is helping me”. He introduced me to his supervisor, whom I would speak with weeks later after Mikey was late one too many times. He got his job back, only to quit soon after.
One day, with Mikey’s permission, I called his uncle, whom he had told me about through a half- verbal trail of cryptic mumbles riddled with pain. I figured he meant something to Mikey and that, likewise, Mikey probably meant something to him. Mikey’s uncle spoke through tears and told me of the hurt Mikey had caused during the couple of years he and his wife had taken him in before he ran away. Hours later, by speaker phone, Mikey’s uncle and aunt pleaded tearfully and convincingly for Mikey to know their unconditional love for him and to come home. At the risk of fate and by the anchorage of grace his aunt and uncle had offered him, he did.
Before he left us, we celebrated. When Mikey left us, he did not leave broken-spirited and alone as he had come. He left us with full belly laughs, playful glances, trash talking, acknowledged regret, and a clear-as-day sense of hope through the retelling of story-after- story and the recounting of not just memories, but meaning and gratitude and a sense of belonging. Further, he left us with a sense of worth that would be transferable back home.
Looking along, looking at, and puzzling through
In his Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant (1781) illuminated the conflict between “reason” and “understanding”, warning that reason devoid of experience risks false understandings. He claimed there can be neither true knowledge nor true understanding apart from experience. The varying faculties of the rational mind analyse and not only extrapolate meaning from information but give it a shape as well, and the mind is shaped in so doing. Kant understood this, and so has, traditionally, humanistic psychology. C.S. Lewis’s (1970) essay, Meditation in a Toolshed, provides an instructive anecdote here.
I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.
Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences…. (212)
The people who look at things have had it all their own way; the people who look along things have simply been brow-beaten. It has even come to be taken for granted that the external account of a thing somehow refutes or “debunks” the account given from inside…We must, on pain of idiocy, deny from the very outset the idea that looking at is, by its own nature, intrinsically truer or better than looking along. One must look both along and at everything. (213)
Lewis (1970) observed, “It has even come to be taken for granted that the external account of a thing somehow refutes or ‘debunks’ the account given from inside” (213). Freud, for instance, engaged intellectually in psychological mythopoeia and brilliantly so. Yet in the course of mapping the longitudinal, he failed to look along. He took long, but he looked at.
If a psychotherapist’s technique is too technical, his efforts to help may be worthless. Therapy in this case may be little more than a poor excuse for scientific experimentation. The mechanisms of some psychotherapies undermine their therapeutic value. If a therapist is not fully present as a warm, accepting, genuine, caring, and appropriately vulnerable person, the power centre of therapy remains turned off. Whatever insight may come along the way, meaningful, sustainable change requires transformative experiencing, with emotion replacing emotion and identity recast in the removal of unnecessary defences and an increasing capacity for secure attachment.
Analysis without encounter constitutes, to borrow again from Lewis, “all the apparatus of thought busily working in a vacuum” (1970: 214). It is our responsibility to stir hope and catalyse strengths rather than to stew history and analyse at length. Far from data to be interpreted or even a patient to be treated, we are heart and soul, of the same essence, both facing existential predicament. Only in the context of authentic relationship and therapeutic alliance can I grasp and catalyse the resources already existing within my clients and, as it were, beyond analysis.
Blake Griffin Edwards is a psychotherapist in Washington State, USA, whose writing has been featured by the American Academy of Psychotherapists, the Association for Family Therapy and Systemic Practice, the Association for Humanistic Psychology, the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, and the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.
Kant, I. (1781). Kritik der reinen Vernunft [Critique of pure reason]. Riga: Hartknoch. Kierkegaard, S. (1849/1983). The sickness unto death. (H.F. Hong, E.H., Hong, Trans.) Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Lewis, C. S. (1970). Meditation in a toolshed. In W. Hooper (Ed.), God in the dock: Essays on theology and ethics (212-215). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Van Sant, G. (Director), Damon, M., & Affleck, B. (Writers). (1997). Good Will Hunting. [Motion picture]. United States: Miramax.